Create The Right Image

Now that you understand the importance of setting an action-oriented objective, and you are able to identify benefits likely to target various personality types, you're ready to evaluate the appropriate level of formality.

Using the Formality Index, you'll answer three simple questions to determine how formal or informal your communication should be. This process helps select the format (e.g., E-mail vs. letter), the tone (e.g., Dear Mr. Jones vs. Dear Richard), and the style (e.g., chief executive officer vs. CEO).

We're an informal society becoming less formal all the time. The decision you make about what level of formality is best will help you create the mood you want. The level of formality sets the tone, creates an image, and has the potential to enhance your relationship with your readers.

The Formality Index asks you to answer three questions on a scale of one to ten, one meaning absolutely not or never and ten meaning absolutely yes or always. If you're uncertain, or if the answer is maybe, sort of, sometimes, or kind of, you would select a score of perhaps four, five, six, or seven. In other words, the higher your score, the closer you are to an absolute yes.

Here are the three questions:

1. Do you know your target reader(s) well and personally?

2. Are they below you in "rank"?

3. Is the subject of your communication good news?

Think about the first question. In business, you may never socialize with someone and yet feel as if you know them well and personally. For example, the coworker in the next cubicle with whom you've shared a cordial relationship for four years or the person you've bought office supplies from for two years might be in this category. The better you know someone, the higher your score.

The second question requires that you define what "rank" means to you. It doesn't refer to a formal system (like in the military). Rather it asks that you evaluate what, in your world, is held in high esteem. Some people value celebrity, age, education, status, accomplishment, job titles, and so on. The more you perceive that you're above your readers (using whatever standards you select), the higher your score.

The third question asks you to consider how the people you're writing to are likely to perceive the content of your message. As you evaluate whether you're delivering good news or not, remember that you can't fake it; just because you think your company's new product is terrific doesn't mean the people you're advertising it to will agree. Are you announcing a raise? That's a ten! Layoffs? That's a one.

Notice that all three questions require that you make judgments. There's no right or wrong, but there are real differences. Consider this example: Let's say that you're sending a tin of chocolate chip cookies to your son who's away at college. You're sending the cookies with a "good luck on your finals and I love you" message.

1. Do you know your target reader(s) well and personally? Yes. You score it a ten.

2. Are they below you in "rank"?

Some people say, "Yes, you bet he's below me in 'rank'!" If that's your feeling, you'd score it a ten. Others say, "No, we're equals," and score it a one.

3. Is the subject of your communication good news? Yes! You're sending cookies—it's a ten.

Your total score is likely to be somewhere between twenty and thirty. The higher the score, the less formal the communication should be. Doesn't it make sense in this case that the note you'll include with the cookies should be quite informal? Now answer the questions while considering a different situation.

Let's say you want to apply for a job. You've found a posting on a website that seems perfect. The ad instructs you to send your résumé and a cover letter.

1. Do you know your target reader(s) well and personally?

No. You've never met the person you're writing to. You score it a one.

2. Are they below you in "rank"?

Most of us would consider a person who has the power to hire us for a job we've defined as "ideal" as above us in "rank" and would therefore assess it as a one. But let us assume that you are at a very high level yourself and that the person you're writing to is only slightly above you or is your equal. Even under these circumstances, the most you are likely to score this question is a five or a six.

3. Is the subject of your communication good news?

It's tempting to think "Yes!—I'm perfect for the job"—score this a ten! Avoid puffery. Certainly it makes sense that your score will be rather high—otherwise why would you apply for the job. But in considering the proper level of formality—the format, tone, and style that's best—it's important to assess whether your communication is "good news" objectively, that is, from your reader's point of view. At the same time, you don't want to diminish yourself. If modesty leads you to conclude that a fair score is a one, ask yourself why you are applying for the job. In this case, let's say that you truly believe you're a strong candidate for the job. You score this question an eight.

Your total score will range from a low of three to a high of thirty. The lower the score, the more formal the communication should be. In this example, your total score is ten (1 + 1 + 8 = 10). A score of ten implies that your communication should be quite formal. With few exceptions, most of us would agree that letters of application for jobs are among the most formal communications we produce. Once you know what level of formality is most suitable for your communication to your target reader, you're in a good position to make the following three decisions:

1. format

2. style

3. tone


The most formal communication format is the one that's been around the longest: a standard letter on conventional letterhead. The least formal business communication is E-mail. Think about this: No matter how serious your message, no matter how little you know someone, and no matter to whom you're writing, if you send your communication via E-mail, it will be perceived as less formal than if it's on paper. That doesn't mean you should not send important communications via E-mail. It does imply that critical, sober messages that are sent via E-mail should use a formal tone and style to compensate for the informal medium.

Here are the least formal media formats:

• newsletters

• handwritten notes

Here are the most formal media formats:

• letters on letterhead

• legal documents

• E-mail attachments, if formally constructed


The following lists provide guidelines for creating formal, standard, or informal communications.

To maintain the most formal style, be sure to:

• Refer to people by their last names, using the honorifics Mr., Ms., or Dr. (Note that "Ms." is now considered the standard honorific when addressing a woman in business.)

• Avoid acronyms; spell out terms every time they are used.

• Adhere to academic standards (don't begin sentences with "but," "because," "and," or "so," for instance).

• Close your communication with either "Sincerely" or "Yours truly."

• Sign both your first and last names.

• Assume no previous knowledge on your reader's part (use appendices or attachments to clarify or summarize details).

To maintain a standard business style (neither formal nor informal), be sure to:

• Refer to people by their last names until you've met or spoken to them, and then use their first names.

• Only use an acronym after you've written out the term it represents completely the first time you use it, followed by the acronym within parentheses; you then can use the acronym throughout the rest of the document. For example, the first time you would write:

English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

Thereafter, you would use EFL.

• Model sentence structure on business conversation; thus, you may begin sentences with "but," "because," "and," or "so," for example.

• Use standard margins.

• Close your communication with "Regards," "Yours," or another favorite business term.

• Assume prior knowledge (if it exists).

To maintain the most informal style, be sure to:

• Refer to people by their first names.

• Use relaxed sentence structures, such as phrases instead of sentences, and frequently begin sentences with words such as "but," "because," "and," or "so."

• Avoid letterhead; instead, use memo pads, sticky notes, or send your message via E-mail.

• Close with your first name or initials (even in E-mail).

• Assume a great deal of prior knowledge; abbreviations, acronyms, and references to inside information are common.

• Maintain a proper business-like look and feel.


Tone refers to the overall feeling conveyed by your writing. Beyond individual writing styles, there are techniques you can use to sound no-nonsense, rational, friendly, or urgent. Formal communications tend to be no-nonsense or rational. Informal communications tend to be friendly or urgent.

Use the following as a guide as you begin the writing process:

• To sound no-nonsense, use the imperative, i.e., begin sentences with verbs. When you begin sentences with verbs, you encourage action. For example, "Attend the meeting," "Fill out the form," or "Return the phone call."

• To sound rational, use a logical progression. For instance, "First you turn on the computer, then you insert the CD into drive D, then you . . . "

• To sound friendly, create empathy with words and phrases that suggest a specific mood or atmosphere likely to strike a chord with your reader. For example, instead of "ABC Bank is pleased to announce that it will sponsor a jazz concert every Friday at seven throughout the summer," say "Picture yourself relaxing at the evening jazz concerts sponsored by ABC Bank every Friday at seven throughout the summer."

• Also, use a conversational tone, as if you were there in person. For instance, instead of "Per our agreement . . . ," say "As we agreed . . . "

• To sound urgent, stress deadlines or consequences. For example, instead of "Please return the form at your earliest convenience," say "Please return the form by Tuesday, August 21."

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